He couldn’t stop

June 18, 2009

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever by Walter KirnIn his new memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, Walter Kirn confesses he learned zilch in school. 

It has nothing to do with poor educational systems or inadequate teachers (he attended Princeton and Oxford), rather Kirn’s skill at finding an angle and playing it.

Early on in his school years, he deduced education was a game and the way to win was to enter contests and events so as to accumulate impressive citations, awards and honors.

“Learning was secondary, promotion was primary. No one ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient.”

At Princeton, he relied on his gift of mimickry, reformulating professors’ ideas to come across as his own.  He strung together complicated words that said nothing but made him appear to be thoughtful and on-target. Even when all the trickery drove him to a nervous breakdown, he recovered and kept at it.

When interviewing for a scholarship to Oxford, he determined the personality the judges were looking for and acted accordingly.

Walter Kirn

Walter Kirn

It’s astonishing that Princeton profs failed to see through Kirn’s game of manipulating a win, not learning.

The book’s last page says he changed “not instantly but decisively” when he began reading Mark Twain and Charles Dickens in earnest the summer before he went to Oxford.  In other words, we’re told he changed, but we’re not shown what that looked like going forward.

I closed the book thinking Kirn’s intent is to reveal how he intellectually hacked through the academic meritocracy.  Nothing more. But because he doesn’t share concluding insight on the experience, I wonder if Kirn is one of those smart frauds who believe the suckers are the ones who are wrong for being deceived.  Hence, no need for personal mea culpa or the transformation explained.

It’s a hollow ending, but what comes before that last page is sobering and laugh-out-loud entertaining.

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